7 iconic North-to-South New Zealand road trips
We kinda love our road trips. So we’ve put together a series of iconic driving routes that’ll help you to discover this incredible country of ours. If you have a few weeks to spare, they join together to form a mega-trip from Auckland to Queenstown.
1. Auckland to Coromandel
Approximately 2.5 hours
There are two routes to Coromandel. The fast way whisks you over the Bombay Hills, then across the peaceful, green Hauraki Plains to Waitakaruru. The slower, more scenic route takes you through farmland to the village of Clevedon before tracing the edge of the Firth of Thames. Both routes give you the chance to visit Miranda’s hot springs and bird sanctuary. Pipiroa makes a good refreshment stop before you venture over Kohu Bridge to the Coromandel Peninsula.
Driving up the east coast of the peninsula to Coromandel, you’ll pass through the historic township of Thames, which was founded during the 1860s gold rush. There are some excellent eating places here.
Between Thames and Coromandel, the road clings to the edge of the coast. You’ll enjoy gorgeous ocean views and a parade of beautiful beaches fringed with pohutukawa trees. In early summer, the crimson blooms make a pretty picture.
Formerly a gold-mining town, Coromandel is a haven for creatives, craftspeople and conservationists. It has many historic buildings, an interesting museum and a good choice of restaurants. There are several hikes in the area and a railway enthusiast has created a small-gauge train trip at Driving Creek.
2. Coromandel to Rotorua
Approximately 3 hours
During the drive from Coromandel to Rotorua, make time to visit Hot Water Beach, where naturally-heated water bubbles up through the sand. At low tide it’s fun to dig your own spa pool.
Further on, the road takes you through the beach town of Whangamata and historic Waihi, a gold mining centre. As you approach the city of Tauranga, stop at roadside stalls to pick up some cheap produce.
Tauranga is a thriving city with a great food scene, while nearby Mt Maunganui is a destination for surfing, hikes around and up the Mount, beach walking and boat trips.
There are two ways to drive from Tauranga to Rotorua – via Pyes Pa or via Paengaroa. The Pyes Pa route is slightly shorter. Entertaining at any time of the year, Rotorua promises to keep you captivated with geothermal phenomena and excellent eateries. Adventures come in all shapes and sizes – from biking through the redwoods and to luging down Mount Ngongataha.
3. Rotorua to Napier via Gisborne
Approximately 7 hours
The drive from Rotorua to Gisborne is packed solid with beautiful natural scenery, including a series of beautiful lakes - Lake Rotoiti, Lake Rotoehu is next and Lake Rotoma.
Whakatane is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand and a fabulous place for lunch. Just offshore is White Island, a spectacular active volcano that can be visited by launch or helicopter.
The short trip to Opotiki takes you past the surf town of Ohope, which has 11 kilometres of uninterrupted beach for swimming, walking, surfing and fishing.
State Highway 2 cuts inland at Opotiki, taking you through magnificent Waioeka Gorge. This road is winding, however it’s seriously picturesque. Take your time and enjoy some of New Zealand’s best roadtrip scenery.
Gisborne is the first city in the world to greet the sun each morning, and it has a well-deserved reputation for great food, wine and surf beaches. As the ‘Chardonnay Capital of New Zealand’, Gizzy has a popular wine trail that leads to cellar door tasting opportunities. Several operators offer tours tailored for individuals or groups, so that you can enjoy cellar doors without the worry of driving.
There are two ways to approach the trip to Napier. The inland route lets you visit Hackfalls Arboretum, one of the largest collections of trees in New Zealand – basically a living tree museum. The coastal route takes you to Morere Hot Springs and the fabulous beaches of the Mahia Peninsula. Both roads come together in the town of Wairoa, memorable for the lighthouse in its main street.
Napier’s catastrophe in 1931, when the CBD was levelled by an earthquake and fire, has led to the city’s world famous point of difference. Today Napier has one of the most outstanding collections of Art Deco architecture in the world. It’s also an excellent base for exploring the Hawke’s Bay wine region.
4. Napier to Wellington
Approximately 5 hours
On your way south you’ll drive through the country towns of Waipukurau and Waipawa. For a big Instagram opportunity make a detour at Waipukurau to find ‘Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ – a hill that has the longest place name in the world (57 characters). If you take this side trip, you’ll rejoin the main road south at Dannevirke, a town first settled by Scandinavians.
Before you come to Masterton, check out the legendary town of Eketahuna – another Instagram opportunity. Not far down the road, the wildlife sanctuary at Mt Bruce is an essential stop – they have an extremely rare white kiwi living here.
Enjoy the gorgeous Wairarapa countryside as you drive further south. After Masterton, the biggest town in the area, you’ll journey through Carterton, Greytown and Featherston. If you want a taste of the Wairarapa’s wine region, take a detour to Martinborough, where you can walk from vineyard to vineyard for tastings.
The final segment of this journey takes you over the rugged Rimutaka Range to Wellington. Nestled between the harbour and the hills, the capital is a place to enjoy galleries, museums, cafes, restaurants and a lively nightlife. Be sure to see what’s on at Te Papa. The wildlife sanctuary Zealandia is another famous Wellington attraction that’s easily accessed from the top of the Kelburn cable car.
5. Picton to Kaikoura
Approximately 2.5 hours
After a scenic cruise from Wellington to Picton on an inter-island ferry, you’ll drive 30 minutes to Blenheim, the heart of wine-growing Marlborough. There are more than 50 wineries (some with restaurants) within driving distance of the town.
State Highway 1 takes you out of Marlborough through the township of Seddon. Make sure you pause at the Lake Grassmere saltworks – this is where New Zealand’s salt comes from. The mountains of sparkly white stuff are intriguing. After the small town of Ward, the road turns toward the awesome beauty of the Pacific Coast. Look for fur seals basking on the rocks as you drive towards Kaikoura.
Kaikoura is a world-famous base for wildlife experiences of all kinds, and it’s a great spot to eat crayfish (the name Kaikoura means ‘to eat crayfish’. You can catch a whale watch tour to see the local sperm whales and dolphins, and the town has a fur seal colony that’s easy to view – just follow the Peninsula Walkway.
6. Kaikoura to Christchurch
Approximately 3.5 hours
The most interesting route to Christchurch from Kaikoura is via Hanmer Springs, a destination for relaxation and fun. Soak in the hot springs, play on the water slides or treat yourself to a range of spa therapies. Outdoor activities are also a Hanmer Springs specialty. Forest walks, horse trekking, trout fishing, jet boating, bungy jumping and golf are some of the choices available.
The route from Hanmer Springs to Christchurch follows the beautiful Waiau River, then passes through Balmoral Forest on the way to Waipara. This area is all about farmland, vineyards and olive groves – it’s an excellent place to stop for lunch. The last leg of your journey takes you past a string of surf beaches on the way to Christchurch.
As Christchurch rebuilds following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, it’s transforming into a new version of itself – a mixture of old and new architecture with cute laneways for eating and more focus on the riverside. Just beyond the city there’s a fantastic adventure park for ziplining and mountain biking.
7. Christchurch to Queenstown
Approximately 6 hours
The scenic route to Lake Tekapo starts at Rangiora, a rural town north of Christchurch. Small towns pop up regularly as you drive across the Canterbury Plains through crop fields and dairy farms. You can explore the historic coal mining settlement of Glentunnel before the road crosses the Rakaia River. The pretty town of Geraldine has an interesting car and machinery museum. After Fairlie, famous for its pies, you’ll ascend to the region called the Mackenzie Basin, which is named after the legendary Scottish sheep rustler (Jock Mackenzie) who roamed the area in the 1850s.
The thriving tourist town of Lake Tekapo is at the southern end of the lake. The extreme turquoise colour of this lake, and others in the area, is caused by glacier-ground rock particles held in suspension. There’s biking, hiking, hot pools and ice skating to keep you amused here. The Church of the Good Shepherd and the sheepdog statue are great photo opportunities.
The short drive to Twizel takes you past beautiful Lake Pukaki. Enjoy the golden tussock and snow-capped mountain landscape. If it’s clear, you might get a photo of Mount Cook.
You’ll know you’ve arrived in Omarama (birth place of Richie McCaw) when you see the giant merino sheep statue. This area’s unique geography has made it a mecca for gliding enthusiasts. The wind blows steadily to form the ‘Northwest Arch’, a thermal that can take glider pilots up to 10,000 metres.
From Omarama you’ll drive through the Lindis Pass. At any time of the year, the pass is stunningly beautiful. In summer the tussocky hills are bleached golden; in winter they’re frosted with snow.
The Clutha River will escort you into Queenstown, where you’ll find an appealing mix of family fun and alpine adventures. A network of bike trails has made it easier to get out and enjoy this region’s gorgeous lake and mountain landscape. Queenstown is also a destination for luxury experiences – gourmet food and wine, spa treatments and leisurely games of golf.
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